Recently an NHPR commentator said that with all that’s been written about World War II over the years, it’s surprising that writers constantly come up with new angles. Claire Mulley’s book represents one of those lesser known aspects of the war - that women played a key role in Hitler’s military. This book focuses on two of those women: Hanna Reitsch, a blond-haired, blue-eyed Aryan poster girl, who loved the glamour of flying and the attention it garnered in the male world of the German military; and Countess Melitta von Stauffenberg, a member of the aristocracy, educated as an aeronautical engineer, and, much to Hitler’s chagrin, of Jewish heritage.
To say that both women were obsessed with flying is an understatement. Together they logged more test flights than all of their male counterparts combined. Melitta would spend afternoons doing calculations and technical drawings for a new bombsight or steering mechanism, spend the evening jury-rigging a plane, and get up the next morning to do dozens of test flights. Whether she was sick, or injured (many test flights did not end well), or in fear of the Gestapo, she was in the air every day. Her brother-in-law spear-headed the July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler, her entire family ended up in prison camps, but still Melitta flew – not for Hitler, about whom she harbored serious doubts from the beginning, but for the Fatherland, the Germany that she felt, as did so many others, had been robbed and humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I. Melitta herself was imprisoned briefly before her supporters in the Luftwaffe convinced Hitler that her abilities were crucial to winning the war. In early 1945, Melitta was flying an unarmed test plane, on her way to visit her imprisoned husband, when she was shot down and killed by an American reconnaissance plane.
Hanna Reitsch, equally obsessed with flight, was a different person altogether, but like Melitta, she took flying to the very limits of the technology of that era. Where Melitta craved nothing more than peace and quiet to do her work, Hanna craved the limelight. Devoted to Hitler and his cause, denying any evidence of the Holocaust taking place around her, Hanna basked in the attention of her Führer. Her flight suits were custom tailored and her Iron Cross was encrusted with diamonds and rubies. She was intensely jealous of Melitta and disparaged her competitor’s intelligence and courage at every opportunity. Hanna died in 1979 of a probable heart attack. She never renounced the principles of Nazi Germany.
This is a fascinating study of the lives of two women who achieved prominence at a time and in a place where such notoriety was not only discouraged but dangerous. Although we may believe their loyalties misguided, both were courageous, both lived at a level of intensity that is difficult to imagine. Mulley has portrayed their lives in compelling detail, backed up by nearly one hundred pages of footnotes. While this book represents a serious contribution to WWII literature, it is also darn good storytelling.